The man with the lifelong obsession with tales of Jewish persecution, who sees anti-Semites embedded into the wallpaper, the "angry Jewish man," is about to decorate a Christmas tree in his own home.
A Christmas tree--this monstrous representation of my fear of disappearance into the bland broth of Christian America--will be shedding its pine daggers in my living room for a few weeks in December.
To my girlfriend, Heidi, the tree is not a religious symbol at all but one
that connects her to family tradition. I can respect that, understand it,
tell myself that it's OK because it's a symbolic compromise for the sake of
harmony with the woman I love.
But just because I've decided to accept it does not mean that the tree has suddenly been stripped of all its negative meaning for me. Not yet, anyway.
Growing up in Georgia, where Christianity was practically the state religion, I've always associated Christmas trees with the forced celebrations in my elementary school, which usually left me alienated ("My Daddy told me that Jews killed Christ!"). With Holocaust survivors in my family, I cannot help but associate symbols of Christianity with anti-Semitism.
It's hard to fully explain this to Heidi, who is agnostic and doesn't really have much use for any sort of religion. The only time she dedicates any thought at all to the topic is when she endures my pontifications on Jewish issues. She understandably gets angry when I tell her that where she sees beautiful heirloom ornaments given to her by her beloved grandmother, I see hatred. "Is it the swastika decorations that bother you?" she'll deadpan.
My belief in God goes back and forth according to my mood and life situation, so Judaism to me is largely a sense of shared history with my ancestors and an obligation to keep alive the traditions that both gave them joy and caused them suffering. The symbols are important to me--the symbols of what Judaism is and what it is not.
Christmas can mean, for an interfaith couple, whatever they decide it means.
But on a deep, gut level, I'm no different from most American Jews in my discomfort with anything Christmas--especially those who have lived in areas of the country where a yarmulke is known as "that funny Jew beanie."
A Christian symbol in a Jewish home--and a Christmas tree is not a secular symbol, as much as many would like to call it--is associated in most Jewish minds with conformity, submission to state authority, and internalization of foreign values--the very reasons our grandparents fled authoritarian regimes. It's fear, perhaps myopia, but also self-preservation that motivates much of our revulsion against an innocent little tree.
This time of year, the nation is ostentatiously joyous, with lights, holly, and evergreens on the streets, while Jews retreat into their homes and light their menorahs, giving the minor holiday of Hanukkah more significance simply because it occurs in December.
At the same time, however, Jewish success in America and the mainstreaming of Jewish culture within it are considered threats, too. In my role as a Jewish journalist, I've heard many Jewish leaders say that we're victims of our own success. Without overt, state-sponsored anti-Semitism, we have no reason to circle the wagons, retreat inward, and keep the faith.
Christmas trees exist outside my home as a constant reminder of my
separateness from mainstream society, that I am part of a minority people who
live under the rule and whims of a Christian nation. However, I also tend to
take pride in our distinctiveness. Now, in my own home, that distinctiveness
is taken away from me.
Just lighten up a little, says a friend, Ed Case, publisher of the InterfaithFamily.com. I'm simply going through the initial negotiation that takes place in any relationship, he believes.
"You referred to the tree as a 'symbol of Christianity,'" Case told me in an e-mail. "This may reflect your own starting point in what may be a long process and it is certainly an understandable position--obviously in some sense it IS a symbol of Christianity--but many people in interfaith relationships don't feel that way about it, and they don't feel that their participation in Christmas celebrations at all compromises their family's Jewish identity."
I'm going to trust Case on that one. He's been in my situation and has come out of it with both his Judaism and his marriage intact.
This December will be a strange one for me, but I'm trying to go into it with optimism. At worst, I'll grit my teeth for a few weeks. At best, that pine monster in my living room has the potential to keep my worldview and my relationship...well...evergreen.